Dreams are one of the weirdest parts of life — and as long as humans having been dreaming at night, we’ve also been trying to interpret those dreams. Sometimes it’s clear that your dream about being pushed onstage not knowing your lines was driven by anxiety about public speaking. And sometimes you dream your ex-boyfriend’s parents are making lemonade by fermenting avocados and Wi-Fi modems in a garbage bag, a dream I woke up baffled from a few weeks ago. We know our brains are flashing images at us, particularly in REM sleep, but there’s a lot about dreams that feels mysterious and meaningful, and it’s not hard to see why throughout history they’ve been seen as a window into the future.
Anyone who’s seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” knows that interpreting dreams is part of Jewish history, too. In the Babylonian Talmud, section Berakhot 55a-57b, there’s some discussion about the meaning of dreams. The Rabbis start with Joseph’s dreams in the Torah and jump off from there about what all kinds of symbols mean. While they believe that many dreams are omens, they also state that every dream has some nonsense in it. This section of the Talmud includes stories that imply interpretation is what gives dreams meaning in the first place. Case in point: Abaye and Rava have the same dream and go to the interpreter Bar Haddaya for answers. Abaye pays Bar Haddaya and is told the dream is a good omen for the future. Rava doesn’t pay him and is told the same dream is a bad omen. Interestingly, this story doesn’t seem to be about how interpreters are frauds – Bar Haddaya’s predictions come true for each of them.
Interpretation is a powerful act that creates meaning. Rav Hisda said a dream not interpreted is like a letter unread, so if you’re looking to make some meaning out of your dreams, here’s an abbreviated Talmudic guide to dream interpretation. If you want to read about every symbol and story the Rabbis discuss, you can find the original text here.
Barley: A good omen.
Eggs: A sign your request is pending. If the eggs are broken that means your request has already been granted.
Grapes: If they’re light colored or if they’re dark colored in the right season it’s a good omen. If they’re dark colored out of season, it’s a bad omen.
Olives: A good omen for business.
Pomegranates: Another good omen for business.
Wheat: A symbol of peace.
Overall, fruits are good omens except for unripe dates, vegetables are good omens except for turnips, and drinks are good omens except for wine, which can be good or bad depending on context.
Cat: This one is very dependent on the Talmud’s Babylonian context. If you dream of a cat in a place where cats are called “shunra” in Aramaic, a nice song will be composed for you. If you dream of a cat in a place where cats are called “shinra,” then it’s a bad omen. Those meanings are both plays on words, so who knows what that means for English speakers dreaming of cats… maybe a sign of catastrophe?
Elephant: If the elephant is saddled, it’s an omen that miracles will be performed for you, and if it’s not saddled, it’s a bad omen.
Goat: Your year will be blessed.
Goose: You should anticipate wisdom. Rav Ashi says, “I saw a goose and had relations with it in my dream and I ascended to greatness and became head of the yeshiva.” So take from that what you will.
Hen: A sign you’ll have a beautiful garden.
Horse: A white horse is a good omen, a red horse walking is a good omen, and a red horse running is a bad omen.
Ox: If you dream you’re riding an ox, it’s a sign you will rise to greatness, but if you dream an ox is riding you, it’s a terrible omen of your imminent death.
Snake: If you simply see a snake in a dream, it’s a good omen for your work and livelihood. If you dream a snake bites you, it’s a sign your livelihood will double. And if you dream you kill a snake, it’s a sign you will lose your livelihood. Rav Sheshet says it’s actually a good omen if you kill a snake in your dream, but the other Rabbis respond that that’s not true and he’s just trying to write a positive interpretation because he had that dream.
Overall, animals are good omens except for an unsaddled elephant, a monkey and a long-tailed ape. All birds are good omens and symbols of peace except owls.
Etrog: A symbol of honor.
Myrtle: If it has a stem, it’s a sign your property will be successful. If you don’t have any property, it’s a sign you will inherit something.
Olive trees: A sign you will have a good reputation.
Palm trees: A sign you’ve stopped doing something wrong.
River: A symbol of peace.
Climbing up onto the roof: A sign you will reach greatness. There’s some disagreement about if you have to stay up there for the whole dream for this to be true. Abaye and Rava both think it’s a good omen even if you climb down from the roof.
Colors: All good omens except for sky blue.
Entering a city: A sign your desires will be fulfilled.
A man named Huna: You will see a miracle. This meaning comes from the letter nun in Huna, standing for the Hebrew word for miracle, nes. The Rabbis say if you dream about someone with multiple nuns in their name, like Hanina or Yohanan, it’s an even better sign.
Metal utensils: All good omens except hoes, chisels and axes.
Nose falling off: Someone who was angry with you isn’t anymore.
A pot: A symbol of peace as long as it doesn’t have meat in it, in which case it’s a symbol of calamity.
Shaving your head: A good omen for you.
Shaving your head and your beard: A good omen for you and your whole family.
Standing naked in public: If this dream takes place in Babylonia it means you’re free of wrongdoing, but if it takes place in Israel it means you’re lacking mitzvot. The Rabbis unfortunately neglect to say what it means if you dream you go to school naked and have to take a test you didn’t study for.
A well: A symbol of peace according to Rabbi Hanina, a symbol of Torah according to Rabbi Natan, and a symbol of life according to Rava.